Prison Phone Companies Battle FCC Over Rate Cap, Want To Be Able To Charge Inmates Up To $14 Per Minute

The operators of at least two of the nation’s largest providers of prison phone service have threatened to sue the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over a plan to cap the rates the companies charge the inmates and their families for phone calls, Ars Technica is reporting.

In a 3-2 vote Thursday, the FCC voted to impose a cap on the fees and per-minute rates prison phone providers can charge. Prior to the vote, providers like Securus Technologies, Global Tel*Link, and Telmate could charge prisoners as much as $14 per minute for prison phone calls in some cases, thanks to exorbitant rates and hidden fees. As FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn explains.

“None of us would consider ever paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped for seemingly no reason, where fees and commissions could be as high at 60 percent per call and, if we are not careful, where a four-minute call could cost us a whopping $54.”

Federal Communications Commission. Image via Shutterstock/Mark Van Sycoc
Federal Communications Commission. Image via Shutterstock/Mark Van Sycoc

As Huffington Post notes, prisoners have no choice but to pay the high costs of prison phone calls because they have no other choice; the companies have a monopoly on phone service. Cesia Pineda, whose husband is detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, pays between $200-250 per month to talk to her husband. She pays $5.25, plus a $6.25 “processing fee,” for a 20-minute phone call.

The high prison phone call rates have also limited prisoners’ access to legal counsel, since many inmates cannot afford to pay for calls to their attorneys.

Prison phone calls
(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

One reason prison phone companies are able to charge such high rates is because the jails and prisons to which they provide service also benefit from the money earned by the companies. Prisons receive a “commission” from the providers in exchange for the exclusive right to provide phone service in a particular prison or jail. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, as well as 15 other Democrats, sent a letter (which you can read here) to the FCC last week called those commissions “kickbacks.”

“Unfortunately, in many cases prisons can receive a commission or “kick-back” from contracts with phone service providers, thus incentivizing a regime in which prisons profit from charging inmates higher rates.”

Although the FCC’s move doesn’t outright ban the paying of those commissions, it does encourage jails and prisons to “move away from” the practice.

The FCC’s vote to cap prison phone call rates does not sit well with the major prison phone service providers. Global Tel*Link CEO said that the cap on rates his company can charge inmates may leave inmates with no phone service at all.

“[The decision] create[s] significant financial instability in the industry and will pose a threat to service at many of the nation’s smaller jails… [It] hurt[s] inmates and their families—the very people they set out to help. While they might see lower per-minute rates, they could be left with either the lowest quality of phone service or no phone service at all.”

Similarly, jails and prisons, which also benefit from the now-outlawed rates, are not pleased with the decision. Jonathan Thompson, executive director and CEO of the National Sheriff’s Association, said the new limits will put an end to phone service in jails and prisons.

“The rate caps established by the FCC will force many jails to limit, or eliminate altogether, access to phones because they simply cannot afford the cost of the service.”

An Ars Technica user who identifies himself (or herself) as a prison corrections officer states that he (or she) also believes the prison phone system is unfair.

“Inmate’s Rights, good versus evil, whether or not an inmate should even be able to call the outside world – all that crap aside, the rates these companies charge do demonstrate that not all the criminals are behind bars – some are still outside and are busy robbing the criminals that are inside.”

Do you believe the FCC made the right decision in putting a rate cap on the phone charges prisoners have to pay? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.

[Photo by Aaron Lambert-Pool/Getty Images]

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